I met Roberta Borger while we were both participants in an emotionally intense class, “Telling the Family Story.” When she read her stories, we were all lulled into a trance by her lovely accent and easy prose. Roberta was born in São Paulo, Brazil and is currently pursuing a PhD in English specializing in Creative Writing at Binghamton University. (See Roberta’s full bio here: https://thebinghamtonpoetryproject.wordpress.com/instructor-bios/ ) She is also the fiction editor for the campus publication Harpur Palate, adjunct instructor at Morrisville State College, and is co-teaching the Children’s Poetry Workshops at the Broome County Library for the Binghamton Poetry Project. I was fortunate that she made time in her busy schedule to answer some questions about her interesting life and her writing. I hope you enjoy!
Heather: You have such an interesting history, geographically speaking! Do you feel as though your poems/stories are infused with influences from your Brazilian background? Also, at what age did you begin learning English?
Roberta: My Brazilian ascendance definitely comes out in my writing, whether it’s in the setting for my stories, the themes I address, or even in the way I use language. Though I write in English, it is, and always will be, my second language and regardless of how fluent I am in it, the word choices I make, the expressions I use, always reflect my native tongue, Portuguese. I started learning English when I was just a baby. One of my grandfathers was American, so I grew up coming to New York to visit him every year, or so. My parents purposefully spoke English at home to encourage me and my brother to learn it. Of course, I also had English classes at school, and in after-school programs, but it wasn’t until I was thirteen, fourteen, when I started reading and writing in English, that my command of the language really took off. Living and studying every day in a foreign language has been a challenge, but one I’ve willingly faced. My English keeps improving and sometimes, I see something I wrote two, three, years ago, and I can’t believe how much better my English has gotten since then.
Heather: You told some very emotional pieces about your family in the class we took together. Does their influence appear in your writing?
Roberta: In my fiction, I can see my family’s influence on the subjects I write about, and how I develop my characters. I grew up studying theater, particularly the acting method developed by Russian dramaturge Konstantin Stanislavsky. He created a system called Emotive Memory, in which actors draw from their own, personal memories and experiences to interpret how a character is feeling or thinking. As a writer, I find this method incredibly helpful. I can write about a character grieving over the loss of a loved one, or someone fighting with their parents, because I’ve gone through that. I know what it feels like.
Heather: Can you tell me a little more about teaching English at the age of 16 in São Paulo? How has your teaching philosophy changed from then to now? What drew you to want to teach workshops with the Binghamton Poetry Project?
Roberta: It was scary, and it was so exciting! I had the opportunity to work at a couple of different language schools, teaching students of all ages, from kindergarteners to senior citizens. My teaching philosophy originally was just doing whatever needed to be done so that the students understood the materials. What I’ve also learned is that a teacher’s job is not just to teach, but also to educate. Teaching is about more than books and tests, and we have to always be able to look at the bigger picture. When I first heard about the Binghamton Poetry Project, I was immediately attracted to the chance of working with students from all different ages and backgrounds, and exploring with them the challenges that poetry always brings.
Heather: Do you find that you incorporate your screenwriting, fiction, and travel writing skills into your poetry?
Roberta: There’s nothing that you learn in one genre that you can’t apply to another. Yes, sometimes you learn techniques that are better suited for one specific genre, but the same way you can take your poetry lyricism and use it in your fiction narrative, you can take setting analysis from travel writing to help you develop setting in fiction, and etc. I think my screenwriting background definitely comes out in how I conceive stories and poems. Scenes play clearly in my head, almost like a movie, and the plot always unveils itself a lot swifter than my character development. I also find writing dialogues somewhat easy, which I attribute to my past as well, since it’s such a significant part of screenwriting.
Heather: Who is your favorite poet? Has a single poet influenced your poetry more than others? Do you have a specific form you like to follow when you write poetry?
Roberta: That’s always the tricky question, isn’t it? It’s so hard picking just one. Robert Frost is probably one of my favorites, but I also love Helen Frost’s “Keesha’s House”. The whole book narrative is written in sestinas and sonnets. Then, of course, there are the Brazilians, like Manuel Bandeira, Cecilia Meireles and Chico Buarque. I think all of them, and others, have influenced how I look at poetry and taught me something about it, but maybe Robert Frost more than others. He was one of the first poets I could actually understand when I was young, and he helped me learn about metaphors and looking for deeper meanings. I also really appreciate authors who can follow forms and rhymes, because they’re so hard for me to do, especially in English, so, though I’ve tried dabbling in formal poetry, most times, when I write, it’s free verse.
Heather: What is your favorite aspect of teaching workshops with the Binghamton Poetry Project?
Roberta: Last semester I taught the adults’ workshop, and it was so much fun seeing everybody trying new things and exploring new techniques, but this semester, I’m teaching the kids, and seeing the pleasure on their faces, their excitement when they’re shouting their answers to the questions we ask them, or reading the poems they wrote, makes me remember why I feel in love with literature in the first place, and it’s incredibly rewarding to witness a new generation discovering that same love.
BPP Spring 2015 Intern